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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Monday, 25 February 2013

For an uncomb (or sore finger)



Shred one handful of smallage very small, and put to it one spoonful of honey, the yolk of an egg, add a little wheat flower to make it thick; then spread it on a cloth, and lay it to the sore twice a day.

The Queens Closet Opened, W M, 1696

Also called an ‘income’, an ‘uncome’, an ‘ancome’, an ‘uncomb’ was probably originally something that ‘came on’, a visitation. In A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1602) it is spelled ‘andcom’, ‘andcome’ and ‘andicome’, of which the OED states ‘The later spellings ancombe, andicomb, show that the word was no longer understood’. The OED ascribes a northern or Scottish origin to the term, but in the sense of ‘something coming on’, a challenge, or something that has to be dealt with, it is closely liked to the very modern, and very southern ‘bring it on’. ‘On’ in the sense of excitement or challenge, beyond just ‘happening’, is seen in ‘game on’, ‘you’re on’ (i.e. ‘I accept your challenge’), perhaps even ‘don’t you know there’s a war on’.

Meanwhile the OED defines an uncomb as ‘An ulcerous swelling rising unexpectedly’ (Wright); a boil; an imposthume; by some later authors applied to a whitlow.’ I wonder how my doctor would react to my complaint that I was suffering from an imposthume or a whitlow. Mind you, a GP friend of mine did refer recently to somebody having a quinsy. It is so easy to believe that the first documented instance of a word can be traced – theoretically you can’t trace the first spoken instance, but the earliest written case has to exist somewhere. But can we ever say that a word – for example, ague, dropsy or flux – has died out? Saying ‘wireless’ in the eighties marked you out as a fogey (I know; I tried it), but we hardly give the word a second thought now.

By the way, smallage was angelica (wild celery) or water parsley, an infusion of which was used to wash and heal ulcers; with the protein of the egg and the antibacterial and antiseptic qualities of honey, this could have been quite helpful.